MARTINSBURG - Searching for deer with a friend Tuesday morning, a Huston Township hunter stumbled upon a seemingly disoriented elderly man in an expanse of hilly forest.
The hunter returned to his friend, unaware that dozens of police, firefighters and volunteers were combing the woods nearby for the man he'd just seen: 84-year-old outdoorsman George Hammel Jr., who had gone missing a day earlier.
The hunters eventually drove Hammel to search coordinators, who sent him, "alive and well," to Altoona Regional for treatment.
Mirror photo by Ryan Brown
Locals who helped search for George Hammel Jr. gather after he was found Tuesday morning.
Hammel had survived a night in below-freezing temperatures. But other older hunters, separated from groups or losing their bearings during solo trips, haven't always been so lucky.
In 2010, a 74-year-old hunter in Washington state died in frigid weather a day after he split off from a family group.
A year later, an older hunter's disappearance in Wisconsin sparked a multi-agency search. He died of cardiovascular disease; evidently, no hunting partners or relatives were present to check on him.
"Take a cellphone. Even if it's just to call for help," Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser said. Electronic devices are forbidden for coordinating targets, he noted, but are perfectly acceptable for finding separated companions.
On opening day last year, an 84-year-old Hollidaysburg man hunting in Elk County managed to keep outside contact with a handheld radio until he made his way to a woodside parking lot, all while search crews scoured the forests nearby.
Hammel inadvertently split off while hunting with his son and another relative on Monday afternoon, Martinsburg fire chief Randy Acker said. The relatives reported him missing that day.
"He just got turned around up in there and didn't know the way out," Martinsburg Police Chief Kerry Hoover said.
Left in an enormous stretch of fogbound forest while police and firefighters led bloodhounds through the night, Hammel wandered a bit but stayed mostly in the same area, Acker said. Warm hunting clothes protected him from the elements.
Some 90 searchers, including 30 volunteers, worked an expanding grid from where Hammel was last seen, clad in bright orange lest hunters in the privately owned forest mistook them for deer.
In the end it was the pair of hunters, not the search party, that by chance discovered Hammel sitting among the trees.
Dozens of searchers chatted and relaxed at the forest's edge Tuesday afternoon, some drinking coffee and smoking as an ambulance carried the disoriented-but-alive Hammel down a farm road.
"I'm just glad he walked out of here," one said.
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.